ROSARIO, Argentina – Public Mass might have stopped across much of the world during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but several aspects of the life of the Church have continued, including efforts to prevent clerical sexual abuse in Latin America.

Evidence came in a Zoom conversation on Friday, with some 2,000 people joining through two parallel screens, plus many more joining through Facebook. It was organized by the Center for Child Protection of Mexico’s Catholic University (CEPROME) and the Vatican Safeguarding Taskforce, launched earlier this year. The event had the support of the Catholic bishops of Latin America.

To be sure, this was no ecclesiastical feel-good session. The talk was blunt and, at times, searing.

“Nowhere have I encountered the level of destruction I found within the Church,” said Chilean laywoman Maria Josefina Martinez Bernal, a member of the National Council on Abuse Prevention and Victims Accompaniment of the Chilean bishops conference since 2011, and a member of the Fundacion para la Confianza, an NGO founded by three survivors of former Chilean priest Fernando Karadima.

“In the name of the will of God, [Church officials] tricked people of faith,” she said. “In sacred places, they violated the trust of young people. Because, with a crucifix in the background, they didn’t believe the victims who came forth, or promised them to act, and didn’t.”

Participants were lay men and women, religious, priests and bishops, who have in common not only their Catholic faith but also their concern for addressing the Church’s clerical abuse crisis.

The event was presented as an “interdisciplinary reflection” on a guidebook released by the Vatican last month on how to respond to allegations of clerical sexual abuse. It included spiritual reflections, technical/legal explanations and Q&A.

As German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner put it during his presentation: “Often it seems that within the Church we don’t really trust Jesus’ word in John 8,32 that the ‘truth will set us free’. Otherwise, how would you explain why people are so fearful when it comes to acknowledging the pain and suffering brought about by the crimes against the most vulnerable ones, those who Jesus calls to be close to him?”

Through his presentation, he asked for courage from the Church to acknowledge that mistakes have been made, and also to implement the laws in place. He also urged the thousands who took part in the session, most of whom work on abuse prevention, to seek allies who are critical of the Church, “experts from outside our usual spaces,” as they can provide input on where the institution is falling short.

Zollner argued that the Church has lost the trust of the people in many places, and that trust and credibility cannot be regained simply by saying “you have to trust in me,” but only by “walking the talk.”

This idea was echoed by other panelists, including Maltese layman Andrew Azzopardi, one of the members of the Vatican Safeguarding Taskforce, who urged prevention organizations to be “guided by victims” because their contribution is “key to make the Church a safer place.”

“The Church has a place of good in the world, but it will never regain its credibility until it shows a consistent position against abuse,” he said.

Martinez hailed the role victims and survivors have had, noting that the “cornerstone act” to address abuse is “breaking the silence and naming the abuse to be able to see it.” Many survivors, she said, lost their faith in God after the abuse, and have little to no expectations on finding justice for themselves when they approach the Church. However, most have the one reason that leads them to make a civil and/or canonical allegation: making sure that, what happened to them, “doesn’t happen ever again.”

She argued it’s important for the Catholic Church to look not only at the abusers to understand their motives, but also to the environment that allows for those abuses to happen.

“The coexistence of chauvinism and clericalism does nothing to help generate healthy environments, where self-criticism is possible and dissenting not dangerous,” Martinez said.

The Church, she said, needs to look into what happened and what allowed for the crimes to happen to be able to have truth instead of cover-up, to have freedom of expression instead of silence, to remember the survivors instead of forgetting them, and to have justice instead of impunity.

“What is our role as lay people? Are we going to wait until we’re convoked? Or are we going to wake up and give our opinion, cease to act as a flock and get involved,” even when the efforts, she acknowledged, might seem useless when facing the Church bureaucracy that leads to the euphemism of “these are the times of the Church.”

During the Q&A section, that came after a two-hour long series of four presentation, Martinez was asked about the situation of the Catholic Church in Chile since Pope Francis sent two top-Vatican officials, Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Monsignor Jordi Bertomeu to investigate a series of allegations.

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Among the positives she mentioned was the fact that a third of the episcopacy was replaced in the past two years. However, she questioned the way in which the replacements were communicated: Bishops who faced allegations of all kinds simply had their resignations accepted by the pope, but no formal acknowledgement of the reasons behind the decision was ever made.

Sicluna and Bertomeu were both participants in the panel.

Bertomeu dedicated much of his remarks to addressing the vademecum, noting some of its flaws, such as paragraphs being too long, or responses too general, basically praising the initiative while calling for a revised edition to come rather sooner than later. Nevertheless, he said the text was needed, as it answers many of the questions he receives from bishops as a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith who investigates abuse allegations.

“It’s a novelty because it exposes the necessary change of mentality in the Church, so that it’s a safe place for victims, a place with healthier relationship amongst its members, and a place safe for children and youth,” the Spaniard said.

Father Daniel Portillo, director of the hosting center at the University of Mexico, praised the role the media has played, saying that the arrival of the scandals to the front page of newspapers showed that the Church was not doing “what our Divine Founder had asked us to do, we were betraying our Christian identity and we had allowed for these actions that are completely contrary to the Gospel to happen.”

“As believers in the Church of the scandals, not only do we assume the pain of the victims and the crimes of those who are members of our Church, but we also see ourselves compelled” to create a better place for the future generation of believers.

For this to happen, Portillo said, prophets are needed. Being prophetic, he noted, does not mean to “tell the future, but to speak the truth.”

“Frankly, I don’t know if ‘a great story’ awaits us as believers,” he said. “If one day negligence and impunity within the Church will be part of the history of the past, however, I think it is extremely important to let ourselves be led by the Spirit, to put everything our effort so that this climate of abuse that has obscured the Church disappears; and then there will be a future.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma